Spies Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Michael Frayn's Spies. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Michael Frayn

Michael Frayn is a prolific playwright, novelist, and translator. After graduating from the University of Cambridge, where he studied philosophy, Frayn worked as a reporter and columnist for The Guardian and The Observer, writing satirical and comical pieces and publishing several novels on the side. He wrote The Tin Man (1965), the winner of the Somerset Maugham Award; The Russian Interpreter (1966), which was awarded the Hawthornden Prize; and Towards the End of the Morning (1967). His plays include Noises Off (1982), Benefactors (1984), and Copenhagen (1998), which won the 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year and the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play (USA). All the while, Frayn translated many works from Russian, including plays by Chekhov and Tolstoy. He is married to Claire Tomalin, a biographer and critic.
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Historical Context of Spies

Frayn specifically sets his novel during World War II, presumably near the end of the war when Britain frequently carried out bombing raids over Germany. England declared war against Germany in 1939, and the war ended in 1945 with the Axis powers’ defeat. In addition to the violence and chaos on the battlefield, the war had a large effect at home—many men left their families at home to go fight around the world, and the war established a different kind of social structure, as it glorified those who served. In particular, the Royal Air Force (RAF), of which Uncle Peter was part, was one of the most important and glorified divisions in the British Army because it kept the country safe from invasion. However, the bombing runs were largely controversial because they indiscriminately killed civilians. Thus, the war plays an important role in structuring the novel and motivating the characters in different ways.

Other Books Related to Spies

George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939) utilizes a similar plot structure to Frayn’s novel by presenting the nostalgic narration of a protagonist who returns to his boyhood town and looks back on his past before and during World War II in London. Other titles, such as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy (1964) and Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (2006), explore the related themes and topics of children as spies and the effect of the war on life and love in London, respectively. Although set in the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861) examines how the highly organized London society affects the personal development of its child protagonist, in much the same way that Frayn also engages with class differences in his own story. Finally, the way the novel explores the subjective and mysterious nature of memory through specific associations with various senses recalls some major themes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
Key Facts about Spies
  • Full Title: Spies: A Novel
  • When Written: 2002
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 2002
  • Literary Period: Contemporary English Literature
  • Genre: Bildungsroman, psychological thriller, realist fiction
  • Setting: Britain, during World War II
  • Climax: The voice of the mysterious man calls out Stephen’s name as he is delivering a satchel full of food.
  • Antagonist: Keith’s father, the Germans
  • Point of View: First person limited, from the perspective of Stephen as an elderly man and as a young boy

Extra Credit for Spies

Award-winning. Michael Frayn’s Spies won the 2002 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize, the United Kingdom's only literary award for comic literature, and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize.

A Common Theme. Despite the variety in the kind of work that Frayn produces, he consistently explores a common theme. In every one of his works—whether it be a play, novel, or piece of journalistic writing—Frayn strives to understand “the way in which we impose our ideas upon the world around us.”